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How to Load a Traditional Muzzleloading Black Powder Rifle

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Older-style poppers like traditional sidelock muzzleloaders are losing ground to inline rifles, and information is getting harder to find. Here's how to load these rifles in an easy-to-follow step-by-step format.
Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: Approximately one minute or less, once your material and tools are gathered together.

Here's How:

  1. Make sure the rifle is not primed! That means no cap on the nipple (percussion) or no priming powder in the pan (flintlock).
  2. Make sure your rifle's bore is clean of fouling and oil. Run a few dry patches down the bore to wipe it clean of oil. (A small amount of fouling is acceptable when loading successive shots in the woods or at the range.) After patching it out, pop a few caps (percussion) or fire a few pans of powder (flintlock) to burn off any remaining oil.
  3. Stand the rifle upright, with the muzzle up, keeping the muzzle pointed away from you and others at all times. Prop it in a safe place where it's stable and won't fall over, such as in the corner of a shooting bench.
  4. Set your powder measure for the desired powder charge and pour the powder into the measure. Be sure to measure each charge consistently.
  5. Pour the powder from the measure (never directly from a horn or flask) into the muzzle of the rifle. Tap the rifle's butt against the ground or rap the heel of your hand against the barrel, to help settle the powder.
  6. To load a patched round ball, place a lubricated cloth patch onto the end of the barrel, centered. Try to keep the patch centered, and some folks say you should even keep the weave of the cloth going the same direction each time. Center the round ball on the patch, and if your ball has a sprue mark, it should be centered and facing upward.
  7. To load a Maxi-ball or other conical bullet, first make sure you have lubricated it to the bullet manufacturer's specifications. Be sure the base of the bullet is clean and dry. Place the bullet on the muzzle and start it by hand, as much as the bullet will allow.
  8. Start the bullet using your bullet starter. If possible, use a flat portion to push the projectile down flush with the bore, then push it slightly into the bore using the short portion of your starter. Next, if you have a longer section on your starter, push the bullet into the bore as far as your starter will allow. Be careful not to pinch any portion of your hand between the starter and the muzzle! It hurts - a lot.
  9. Using your ramrod, ram the projectile down the bore until it contacts the powder charge. Seat it firmly but don't pound on it. Seat each bullet with as close to the same pressure as you can manage. You may want to mark your ramrod and use the mark to ensure that each load is seated to the same depth. Do not fire a muzzleloader unless the projectile is seated firmly against the powder charge!
  10. It is recommended that if you have any doubt about your bullet's tight fit in the bore, you now turn over the loaded but unprimed rifle and tap the muzzle - hard - a few times on a block of wood. Then insert the ramrod and check with your reference mark (see step 9) to see if the bullet has moved. If it has not, you have a good tight load.
  11. Prime your rifle. For percussion models, cock the hammer and place a properly-sized percussion cap onto the nipple. Carefully hold the hammer back with your thumb and pull the trigger, and gently lower the hammer until it almost touches the cap. Then release the trigger while still holding the hammer, and pull the hammer back until it clicks one time. This should place your gun at half-cock (safety position). For flintlocks, see below.
  12. For flintlocks, open the frizzen and pour a small amount of FFFFg powder into the pan - usually enough powder to half-fill the depression in the pan. Follow the directions above for placing your rifle at half-cock, making sure you don't allow the flint to create any sparks.
  13. To ready it for firing, fully cock the hammer (keeping your fingers away from the trigger) until it clicks into the full-cock (all the way back) position. The rifle is now ready to fire. Your rifle should not be cocked until it is pointed downrange at a target with a safe backstop, unless you're hunting. In that case, don't cock it until you need it (i.e. when your game is there in front of you).

Tips:

  1. Never fire a muzzleloader unless the projectile is seated firmly against the powder charge! Doing so is extremely dangerous and can blow up or otherwise damage your rifle.
  2. If you forget the powder, heed these words of advice from the late Douglas Adams: Don't panic. You can either use a bullet puller (sharp screw that goes on the end of your ramrod) or you can remove the nipple and pour a little powder into the barrel through that hole. For flintlocks, look for a screw that will allow you to pour powder into the chamber. Then replace the nipple or screw and use your ramrod to seat the bullet all the way down. Then prime your piece and shoot it clear. (See below also.)
  3. After attempting to clear your barrel in the above manner, use your ramrod to check and make sure that the bullet was fully driven out of the bore and that the barrel is completely clear. If it is not, use a bullet puller, or repeat the process outlined in tip 2 - making sure to ram the projo all the way down each time you attempt to shoot it out of the barrel.
  4. If you cannot ram the ball down the bore, then you must either use a bullet puller to remove it, or have the gun disassembled and push the bullet out through the muzzle. Most shooters would do well to consult a gunsmith in the event their traditional muzzleloaders need to be taken apart to that extent.

What You Need

  • Ramrod
  • Cleaning jag in appropriate caliber, to fit your ramrod
  • Cleaning patches
  • Projectiles (and cloth patches if using round balls)
  • Lubricant for bullets and/or for patches
  • Black powder
  • Powder measure designed for black powder
  • Bullet starter
  • Percussion caps (or FFFFg priming powder for flintlocks)
  • Nipple wrench (percussion)
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